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Reviews

Book Review: Our Time Is Now

If one needs a palate cleansing after the bitter taste of the Trump years, Stacey Abrams’ Our Time is Now is just the book to read.

I didn’t know what to expect going in. I knew of her close Georgia gubernatorial race in 2018. I followed the Georgia U.S. Senate runoff elections last month and knew she played a role in voter turnout after declining to be a candidate herself. If anything surprised me about the book, it was how timely is Abrams’ message as the Biden-Harris administration gets to work.

There are some key takeaways:

She emphasizes the importance of counting everyone during the U.S. Census. Undercounting the poor, persons of color, and other disenfranchised U.S. residents serves to further disenfranchise them. President Trump attempted to politicize the U.S. Census. President Biden reversed Trump’s executive actions and seeks to give the Census Bureau needed time to make the best count possible. That means a delay in states receiving information required for their decennial re-districting process. Biden knows what Abrams suggested: the U.S. Census is important to restoring political power to people.

Abrams emphasizes that people should vote. She also criticized the voter targeting methods use in the 2016 and 2018 Democratic campaigns. Voter registration continues to play a key role in citizens gaining political power. It goes without saying voting does as well. The conclusion I drew from the book was that no voter should be ignored during campaigns.

The book refreshes our collective memory about voter suppression efforts by Republican lawmakers. Abrams’ story was she overcame systemic voter suppression during her Georgia gubernatorial campaign by the sheer number of new voters they activated. The permanent solution is for voters to take control of the electoral process by electing more Democrats at every level. With Democratic control of state legislatures, it is less likely voters will be suppressed.

As a child I learned the importance of civic engagement. Unlike most Americans today, I study the issues and candidates, and vote in every election. I don’t know what happened yet we need to return to that basic tenant of governance. If we seek to retain government by the people, participation is required. That is Abrams’ message.

I read a lot of political books and Abrams’ book is well-written and relatable. If we seek to move our country forward, elect more Democrats. Stacey Abrams has provided a roadmap in Our Time is Now.

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Living in Society

Why Politics is Less Fun

Google Earth clip of Lincoln County, Minnesota.

Depending upon which family tree one ascends, I am fifth generation American. The line descends from Prussia near Poznan during the late 19th Century partition of Poland. American politics was not as high on the list of priorities in 1883 when great great grandfather bought land.

An account of the funeral of the first Polish immigrant in Lincoln County, Minnesota says who we are as well as anything.

The first death that occurred after the Wilno Poles arrived “out of the wind,” as Róza Górecki had put it, was an occasion not only to mourn the deceased, but also to reflect on being buried in an alien land, far from the graves of friends and relatives. The funeral of Anna Felcyn (who died leaving several small children) in 1886 featured a procession with 30 wagons. Beginning at her home at 8 a.m. and proceeding past nearly every farm in the community, the procession lasted for six hours before reaching the church. Everyone stopped work for the entire day to attend the funeral Mass. A final procession to the cemetery — nothing more than a plot of land set in the vastness of the wind-swept prairie — ended in a graveside sermon by the pastor that was so emotional that all present — men, women and children — were moved to tears.

Poles in Minnesota by John Radzilowski

What stands out in this story is the sense of community. It takes a commitment to each other to make a six-hour funeral procession to the church. Over the years, these Minnesota Poles stuck together in numerous ways. After the turn of the century, the community advocated for Polish independence and for U.S. Government aid for their struggling homeland. They elevated George Washington and Abraham Lincoln into the pantheon of Polish heroes like Tadeusz Kościuszko and Kazimierz Pułaski in a process of assimilation that preserved their Polish ethnicity while entering the mainstream culture of Americans. Their politics came from this sense of community and causes that mattered to them based on their recent immigration and efforts to settle in Minnesota. I don’t know if they viewed it as “fun” yet absent these cultural ties, our politics has become less so.

Vestiges of community remained when I was growing up. Not so much a Polish community — although there was that — as much as a cross section of society created by my Virginia-born father and Illinois-born mother moving to and living in a community of mostly descendants of German and Irish immigrants.

Working out of the union hall where he was a member, Father organized the neighborhood to elect John F. Kennedy in 1960. When he finished organizing our neighborhood, he helped with another one nearby. The union hall provided the materials, although there were no computerized databases of voters like there are today. He worried about who lived here and how they might vote.

I was spoiled by the landslide victory of Lyndon Johnson in 1964 at age 12. Given recent Democratic presidents — FDR, Truman and Kennedy — I figured our party would dominate politics going forward. Living in Iowa, I knew the state was Republican yet Johnson’s decisive win created a false sense of security that political things would proceed in a commonsense, productive manner. Then came Nixon.

During the Nixon administration our politics lost grip of the rudder. He made some positive, logical steps in governance. He was perhaps the last president to do so in a way that benefited every American. At the same time, he appeared a drunken, vindictive, and lying politician. In the end, he was forced to resign. Since then, the party of our presidents rotated between Republican (Ford, Reagan, Bush I, Bush II, Trump) and Democratic (Carter, Clinton, Obama, Biden). The main common political direction has been supporting the military by spending too much money. For the rest, Republicans negated Democratic initiatives and vice versa as time went on.

After Nixon, the potential for a landslide election like in 1964 was diminished. Increasingly our electorate became divided into factions. It took a global pandemic to enable our politics to focus on resolving the contagion and the economic crisis it helped create. When Joe Biden won the election it was absent a feeling of jubilation. Responses were subdued, more a sigh of relief that we could grab the rudder and steer the ship more toward sanity and discipline, at least for the next four years.

There is no returning to the 19th Century sense of community. Remnants remain yet it is no more as it once was. In the fifth generation since immigration I see we must make our own way. In politics we seek other means to connect with fellow citizens, although the connections are not deep as they once seemed. Increasingly achieving political goals is not fun. Those of us with progressive ideals accept political solutions to our most pressing problems are beyond the ken. On the long journey home we accept its length.

From time to time images of the six-hour funeral procession come to mind. We don’t understand fully what we’ve lost.

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Living in Society

Count the 22 Votes

Rita Hart

The Federal Contested Election Act of 1969 is the statutory basis, designed by the Congress, to resolve election disputes like the one between Rita Hart and Mariannette Miller-Meeks in Iowa’s Second Congressional District. With a six-vote margin, it was as close as it could get.

The Hart campaign identified 22 legally cast votes that were not counted. Miller-Meeks has not contested them. They should be counted.

I read Miller-Meeks’ response to the appeal and it argued, in part, Hart did not exhaust all state-level venues for her contest. No she didn’t. That is not relevant. There is no legal requirement under Federal law to exhaust other remedies in this election dispute. If anything, the House Administration Committee is exactly where this dispute should be decided as the Congress designed the statute specifically for this type of case.

I would understand if Miller-Meeks contended the 22 ballots identified by Hart were in some manner suspect. She didn’t. Whatever the Congress decides on the rest of it, those 22 votes should be counted.

~ This letter first appeared in the Jan. 28, 2021 edition of The Daily Iowan

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Reviews

Book Review: The Hidden History of American Oligarchy

In The Hidden History of American Oligarchy: Reclaiming Our Democracy from the Ruling Class, Thom Hartmann recounts three periods of increased hegemony of oligarchs in American society. He posits that with the inauguration of Joe Biden as president on Jan. 20, 2021, we citizens have work to do to reclaim our democracy from the control of wealthy Americans.

The history of increased influence of wealth in the United States is becoming well known. Stories about it appear frequently in newsletters, on radio and television, and in books and other publications. In this book, Hartmann adds a needed layer of historical context to the discussion.

Readers may be familiar with the Powell Memo, Citizens United, the rise of dark money interests coordinated by Charles and David Koch, and the power they wielded to take control of our government, including the judicial, legislative and executive branches. Donald J. Trump’s presidency is a logical extension of these influences. We left democracy behind and become an oligarchy ruled of, by and for the rich, Hartmann said. The next step is tyranny if democratic values don’t return to dominance.

“The United States was born in a struggle against the oligarchs of the British aristocracy,” Hartmann wrote. “Ever since then the history of America has been one of dynamic tension between democracy and oligarchy. And much like the shock of the 1929 crash woke America up to glaring inequality and the ongoing theft of democracy by that generation’s oligarchs, the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has laid bare how extensively oligarchs have looted our nation’s economic system, gutted governmental institutions, and stolen the wealth of the former middle class.”

Hartmann lays out his argument in plain, easy to understand terms and gets to the crux of it quoting former President Jimmy Carter, “So now we’ve just seen a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors, who want and expect and sometimes get favors for themselves after the election is over…. The incumbents, Democrats and Republicans, look upon this unlimited money as a great benefit to themselves. Somebody who’s already in Congress has a lot more to sell to an avid contributor than somebody who’s just a challenger.”

More simply put, Al Gore said in his 2013 book, The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change, “American Democracy has been hacked.”

The book quickly works through the origins of oligarchy in America from the invention and wide use of the cotton gin, the rise of industrial robber barons, and the Reagan revolution. Hartmann’s focus is not only on reminding us of history.

In the final section Hartmann details a dozen ways to break the hegemony of the oligarchy. They include addressing media, taxing the rich, restoring election integrity, and rebuilding a progressive Democratic Party. While readers can’t do everything alone, the book serves as a roadmap for where progressives can go from here to combat the oligarchy.

Like Hartmann’s other Hidden History books, this one is a quick but important read for people who are engaged in progressive politics and seek a change from the power of moneyed interests and concentration of wealth among the richest Americans. The Hidden History of American Oligarchy is a must read. It will be released on Feb. 1, 2021.

~ First published on Blog for Iowa

Categories
Living in Society

Inauguration Day 2021

Inaugural pin.

It is a new day in America as Joe Biden and Kamala Harris take their oaths of office and install a new administration this afternoon.

They have a long list of items to accomplish today. The rest of this week, and the whole term, is expected to be a non-stop effort to reverse four years of degradation to our country and its standing in the world. As Biden said during the campaign, he wants to build back better than we were. It is a daunting task. Things have changed since the Obama-Biden administration, although, not enough to lose hope. The official schedule calls for the 46th president to sign executive orders and take other presidential actions beginning at 5:15 p.m.

“Our tradition of a peaceful transition of power, established in 1800, has been broken,” wrote historian Heather Cox Richardson in her Letters from an American. It is hard to dispute.

Security in the U.S. Capitol is unprecedented for the inauguration of a president. Thousands of National Guard soldiers occupy the center of our government. As journalist Laura Rozen put it, “Troops, have arrived in Washington, D.C., after an attempted coup by pro-Trump extremists.” Citizens and friends are discouraged from attending the inauguration in person.

It’s not like our government has been working for anyone but the richest Americans. The economy is in shambles and the coronavirus pandemic rages with more than 400,000 dead of the virus. The Federal Government executed more than three times as many people in the last six months than it had in the previous six decades. Trump’s support for Saudi Arabia in its war in Yemen resulted in a humanitarian crisis. In almost every aspect of life, things we cherished have been violated.

A majority of Europeans believe America’s political system is broken and Joe Biden will be unable to halt his country’s decline on the world stage, according to a recent survey. China is rising and many expect them to eclipse American’s post World War II role as preeminent world leader. Foreign policy, like almost every aspect of governance, was not a strong suit of the Trump administration.

I pay attention to the inaugurations of our presidents. I listened to every inaugural address since Truman, 13 presidents in my lifetime. With an open mind I’ll find Biden’s live stream and listen to his speech. Much as I’d like Biden to be brief, I have followed him for a long time and don’t expect brevity, brilliance, or much that has not been vetted on the campaign trail. Surprise me, though.

Like any new political beginning, our transport vehicle carries a lot of baggage. With Biden and Harris’s experience, one hopes they brought along what we will need to improve our lives. Fingers crossed.

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Living in Society

January 13, 2021

Cedar Rapids Gazette, Jan. 14, 2021.

President Donald Trump was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday on a 232-197 vote. He could have gone gracefully after losing the election, but chose not to.

I listened to much of the so-called debate on the article of impeachment and affirmed most politicians don’t really know how to debate or give a speech other than one that promotes confirmation bias.

The future for our country is uncertain, Washington D.C. is going on lock down for the inauguration, National Guard soldiers are on bivouac inside the capitol, and citizens are being discouraged from attending the inauguration ceremony in person. This is not normal.

America is still here after the president’s actions leading up to Jan. 6. We will remain once Trump’s term ends on Jan. 20. Anyone familiar with American history knows we are not perfect. We strive to get better, to form a more perfect union as Abraham Lincoln said in his first inaugural address. On the morning after the impeachment we have a long distance to go.

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Living in Society

Waning Days

Obama’s Last Campaign Rally, Des Moines, Iowa, Nov. 5, 2012

Yesterday afternoon President Trump and Vice President Pence met and decided they would work together for the rest of the administration.

That meeting is similar to one held on Aug. 7, 1974, between President Richard Nixon, U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater, U.S. House Minority Leader John Rhodes, and U.S. Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott. The three Congressmen made it clear to Nixon he faced all-but-certain impeachment, conviction and removal from office in connection with the Watergate scandal. Nixon announced his resignation the next evening.

What the Trump-Pence meeting means is neither a resignation from Trump nor his removal by the process outlined in the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by Pence and the cabinet will be forthcoming. The U.S. House of Representatives has enough co-sponsors of the Article of Impeachment to impeach the president. A vote is expected tomorrow.

Last news was the U.S. House would pass the article of impeachment and immediately transmit it to the U.S. Senate which is scheduled to reconvene on Jan. 19. U.S. Senator Chuck Shumer is seeking a path in the Senate rules to call the Senators back to Washington earlier for an impeachment trail. It is unknown if Trump will be removed from office before the scheduled inauguration of Joe Biden.

Yesterday 14 busloads of National Guard troops arrived in Washington. The FBI indicated armed protests are expected in Washington and in all 50 state capitols on or around the date of the inauguration. The Department of Defense said they will review troops deployed to the Biden inauguration to ensure they don’t have sympathies to domestic terrorists. President Trump declared a state of emergency in Washington, D.C. yesterday, citing the “emergency conditions” surrounding President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration. The president-elect continues to plan the inauguration ceremony outdoors. Biden is not afraid.

It was clear from the day of Trump’s inauguration his presidency was going to be bad. We didn’t know how bad. On the cusp of a second impeachment by the U.S. House, the president may end his term at a low point. The sad news is there are nine days left and what happens is anyone’s guess. It could get worse. We must accept the bad news of the Trump-Pence meeting last night and hope for the best from our political leaders.

News accounts of time-lines of Jan. 6 events at the capitol are being developed and published. Each hour we learn a little bit more. Those of us removed from the capitol follow the news closely, partly because it is so bad, partly because we hope for an end to the corruption, sedition and incompetence followed by a new, positive beginning.

As Trump prepares to make his exit there is a lot to learn. A book has already been written about what needs to be done to shore up the presidency after the Trump years. There is discussion of whether the White House family quarters will be safe, sanitary and secure immediately after noon on January 20, 2021. Perhaps the new president should stay somewhere else until a detox of the building can be done. There is much uncertainty today as the incompetence of President Trump is revealed, and the hopeful, positive plans of President-elect Biden move forward in tandem.

In the waning days of the Trump administration we are saddened it turned out worse than we foresaw on Jan. 20, 2017. There is little consolation other than that our country endured the indignity of this administration. Despite the breach of the capitol building six days ago our democracy was unflinching and resilient. After Trump, who knows for how long?

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Living in Society

January 6, 2021

Occupying U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, Jan. 6, 2021. (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

There haven’t been days like Jan. 6, 2021 in my life. Ever.

It’s been clear for a while, certainly since Georgia was called for Joe Biden, who won the 2020 presidential election. President Trump refused to recognize his loss. Yesterday during a speech in Washington he said he would never concede.

Trump urging a gathering of well-dressed cosplayers to storm the capitol building was too much. Trump has been too much since his inaugural address. While I need to process it, one thing is clear: two more weeks of Trump would be too much and he should resign. If he won’t, the Congress should remove him.

While growing up, ours was a Democratic family. We were accepted in the community even though Iowa was and still is a Republican state. It likely helped that three of the four presidents in my life by 1968 were Democrats: Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson. It also helped that Father belonged to the meat cutters union.

Dwight Eisenhower was Republican yet he was also supreme commander of Allied forces in Western Europe during World War II. A number of World War II veterans lived in our community and spoke often about the war. We could relate to Eisenhower. Some of his initiatives, like creating the Interstate Highway system, benefited us directly. Our political life was good and a part of the culture that occupied a small space in each day. Eisenhower would not be elected to anything by today’s Republican party.

As years went by that all changed and political discourse gained hegemony in our lives. It began with Nixon who was forced to resign the presidency because he was a crook. We knew he was a liar after his televised explanation of the war in Cambodia. We didn’t like having a liar and crook as president. The shooting incident at Kent State in 1970 pushed me and others over the edge. I still have the clipping of us demonstrating at the Iowa National Guard Armory in Davenport.

Then there was Reagan who opened the door for dramatic change in our politics. What doesn’t get talked about enough is his ceasing enforcement of the Fairness Doctrine. It led to the rise of right wing talk radio and FOX News, both of which had a deleterious effect on our politics. If Reagan did some good things on nuclear disarmament and for the environment, the downside was much worse. The Reagan Revolution began dismantling the government. Every Republican president after Reagan — George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and Donald Trump — chipped away at government. Republicans would say the changes were needed. Democrats would say we can do better.

At 1:30 a.m. today I joined 160,000 others in viewing a live stream of the U.S. House of Representatives proceedings regarding acceptance of the certified results of the presidential and vice presidential election. We all should have been sleeping. It was hard to look away even though the speeches were mostly pure drivel. It should be so simple: voters registered and voted, state officials counted the votes and certified them, and certifications were sent to the U.S. Congress to be counted. It should have happened during daylight and but for the cosplay it would have.

I’m tired of middle of the night politics. When issues are important, like last night, I stay awake and listen or watch. If I know the legislators I text or email with them while debate is ongoing. How could I sleep? I’m usually a wreck the next day.

If politics takes more of our time, it’s because old assumptions are no longer valid and so much is at stake. People like me planned our lives based on assumptions about government. Republicans have changed everything and would change it more given the opportunity.

We have to get to a politics of daylight where everyone is respected, can participate, and have a say. Except in matters of war we don’t need to debate at night. Jan. 6, 2021 serves as a reminder we can’t follow the path of Reagan, the Bushes and Trump any longer. We must find a new way together. I’m willing to do my part.

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Sustainability

Epistemological Crisis

Frozen lake, Dec. 21, 2020.

It’s no secret there is an epistemological crisis undermining the authority of knowledge. It may be the most significant problem to grow out of the Reagan administration. That the discussion of creationism versus evolution returned during the 1980s was only the beginning.

There is a difference between justified belief (a.k.a. facts) and opinion and it is epistemological. That is, “relating to the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope, and the distinction between justified belief and opinion,” according to Dictionary.com. At issue is that solutions to other pressing problems rely on the ability of Americans to separate opinion from facts, something we as a society have become less able to do. Al Gore recently summarized our current situation as follows:

And though the pandemic fills our field of vision at the moment, it is only the most urgent of the multiple crises facing the country and planet, including 40 years of economic stagnation for middle-income families; hyper-inequality of incomes and wealth, with high levels of poverty; horrific structural racism; toxic partisanship; the impending collapse of nuclear arms control agreements; an epistemological crisis undermining the authority of knowledge; recklessly unprincipled behavior by social media companies; and, most dangerous of all, the climate crisis.

Al Gore, New York Times, Dec. 12, 2020

Unless we can agree there are facts, and how to distinguish them from opinions, we may have reached the end of the long, good run that was the American republic.

During the time since Reagan, moneyed interests gained hegemony in our government and society. Thom Hartmann put it this way in his forthcoming book The Hidden History of American Oligarchy: Reclaiming Our Democracy from the Ruling Class:

Billionaire oligarchs want to own our republic, and they’re nearly there thanks to legislation and Supreme Court decisions that they have essentially bought. They put Trump and his political allies into office and support a vast network of think tanks, publications, and social media that every day push our nation closer and closer to police-state tyranny.

Thom Hartmann, The Hidden History of American Oligarchy: Reclaiming Our Democracy from the Ruling Class, to be released February 2021.

It is particularly distressing American oligarchs used the cover of the coronavirus pandemic to increase their grip on the nation and extract taxpayer money intended to alleviate the fiscal crisis it caused. In normal times this would be unthinkable. These are not normal times.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act which deregulated use of the public air waves. Regulations put in place in the 1920s through the 1940s were largely repealed. The result has been to consolidate most media under half a dozen corporations which now control the message. Perhaps Sinclair Broadcast Group is the worst in that they distribute editorial pieces from the corporation for inclusion during on-air broadcasts. All of the media corporations play a role in the deterioration of knowledge.

In 1987 President Ronald Reagan directed the FCC to cease enforcement of the Fairness Doctrine. In 2011 the Obama administration removed it from the FCC rules completely. Broadcasters no longer had an obligation to present balanced or fact-based information. The significance to the epistemological crisis these actions brought is hard to overstate.

What do we do about it? For those of us on small, private blogs it is easy: have a basis in fact if we run a story, focus on inquiry and understanding. As Tom Nichols pointed out in his book, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, “None of us is a Da Vinci, painting the Mona Lisa in the morning and designing helicopters at night. That’s as it should be. No, the bigger problem is that we’re proud of not knowing things.”

With their 40-year head start, it will be challenging to overtake the oligarch puppet masters who bought much of our government. Hartmann has a dozen ideas to get us started. Gore and Nichols have more. The bottom line is the truth matters, scientific methods matter, and while religious belief plays a role in human culture there is a difference between things we take on faith and those that can be verified through scientific methods.

At the Oct. 22 presidential debate, Joe Biden said, “We’re going to choose science over fiction.” It’s a starting point on a long journey, one which we all should join.

~ Written for Blog for Iowa.

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Living in Society Writing

Bush v Gore

Lake Macbride State Park, Dec. 21, 2020.

Al Gore conceded the Nov. 7, 2000 general election on Dec. 13. It was close, and as we know, it came down to a hand count of ballots in Florida which the U.S. Supreme Court stopped. While Gore won more popular votes than George W. Bush, he lost the electoral college. It was unlike anything I remembered in presidential politics. For weeks I printed out briefs filed in the court case at home and read them all.

I emailed a friend a couple of days after the election while on a business trip to Chicago:

11/9/00 8:35:57 PM
Got your note…what an election. I left the house at about 7:10PM and drove to Princeton, IL, listening to the returns coming in. I stopped at the Days Inn (trying to be closer to Chicago for my early morning meeting Wednesday), and stayed up until after midnight watching CNN and their commentary.
Whoever it is that gets elected is going to have a bear of a time making anything happen. I do not look forward to the next year or two.

Email to Dan Czolgosz, Nov. 9, 2000.

I had hope there would be some redeeming qualities about Bush. Such hope was reinforced by his inaugural address.

I am honored and humbled to stand here, where so many of America’s leaders have come before me, and so many will follow.

We have a place, all of us, in a long story — a story we continue, but whose end we will not see. It is the story of a new world that became a friend and liberator of the old, a story of a slave-holding society that became a servant of freedom, the story of a power that went into the world to protect but not possess, to defend but not to conquer.

It is the American story–a story of flawed and fallible people, united across the generations by grand and enduring ideals.

The grandest of these ideals is an unfolding American promise that everyone belongs, that everyone deserves a chance, that no insignificant person was ever born.

George W. Bush Inaugural Address, Jan. 20, 2001.

Following a brief period of support which lasted until after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Bush lost me.

The point I would make about the election today is the winning margin in Florida was close, yet the closeness of the race did not make it too difficult for Bush to govern. Whatever support Bush had from the opposition, he squandered it in his reaction to the terrorist attacks and in the invasion of Iraq. Lack of a majority constituency was insufficient constraint to furtherance of Republican goals.

Al Gore’s 2000 loss and the Bush administration’s actions radicalized me to get involved in party politics again. I would no longer take politics for granted. The story about my radicalization unfolded during each of the next ten election cycles.